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Chattanooga Times Free Press (Tennessee)

 

For the second time in three months, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga vice chancellor and athletic director Mark Wharton is having to replace a head coach of one of the school's top programs.

Wrestling coach Heath Eslinger announced his resignation Thursday after nine seasons as the Mocs' leader. Assistant Kyle Ruschell, who recently joined the program after eight seasons as a Wisconsin assistant, will serve as the interim coach.

Hall of Fame women's basketball coach Jim Foster retired in April after 40 seasons of coaching, the last five at UTC. He was replaced by assistant Katie Burrows.

Eslinger, a former UTC standout wrestler, will move on to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, with a focus on coaching development as well as the "parent education side of sports."

"I just want to be a change agent for good," Eslinger told the Times Free Press on Thursday.

"It was always my hope that Heath Eslinger spend the rest of his career leading our wrestling program," Wharton said in a news release. "He is an outstanding coach and an even better human being. We are certainly going to miss him.

"As most of us know, he has become a sought-after public speaker and coaching mentor. He has an opportunity to couple that with his faith and follow a new career path. We wish him and his family nothing but the best as they embark on this new journey."

Eslinger's teams won six Southern Conference championships in his nine seasons, finishing with a career record of 101-61. He was 53-5 against SoCon competition during that time.

His 100th victory came over Gardner-Webb on Feb. 11 at Maclellan Gymnasium.

He had been wrestling with the decision for a few days, finally coming to terms Tuesday night.

"I realize I was divided, and you can't be great at anything when you're divided," Eslinger said. "I had to choose, and I really felt like this was next for me."

FCA area director Jay Fowler said Eslinger "has been an incredible volunteer for us for decades, and I can't think of anyone better than Heath Eslinger to work with the coaches who work day-to-day with the kids. I know he's going to make a huge impact in our ministry in Chattanooga, in Tennessee and beyond."

Eslinger was voted SoCon coach of the year twice (2011, 2013) and coached two SoCon wrestlers of the year, two SoCon tournament most valuable wrestlers and three SoCon freshmen of the year. UTC wrestlers won 25 individual league weight-class titles during his time.

He was also instrumental in the move of the Southern Scuffle in 2012 after UNC Greensboro — the host the eight previous years — cut its wrestling program. The Scuffle, a two-day invitational tournament held Jan. 1-2, is the top in-season collegiate tournament in the nation with over 20 teams in attendance.

The program also has finished in the top 10 in the country in team grade point average among wrestling programs three times and topped a 3.0 GPA as a team in the fall of 2016, repeating that feat in the fall of 2017.

Wharton said he expects to receive interest from "highly qualified candidates from across the country." With all the time he has invested in the program both as a competitor and a coach, Eslinger said he's willing to help with the transition however he can.

"I look back at my time with gratitude," Eslinger said. "I'm just super grateful. I see God's hand in all of it, and I trust my next season in life will be the best one yet."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.

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